To Russia with Love

(A tour of Beslan, Ossia, Russia)

DAY ONE, THE JOURNEY

Thanks to a good friend called CHRIS HARRIS I am now the proud owner of a laptop computer. Brought for me so that I can publicise my work with children affected by conflict and/or trauma. But don’t worry; I’m not off to Iraq or anywhere that dangerous this time. Instead I’m off to Heathrow and a plane to Moscow, Russia. Once there we turn right and fly to Beslan in the southern mountain rang known as the Caucasus Mountains, near Georgia, for a few days work. You might remember Beslan; it’s the place near Chechnya where the freedom fighters took over a school and held kids and adult’s hostage, resulting in the massacre of over 300 people, and loads of trauma for those who survived.

The trips been organized by a nice man called SIMON JOSEPH, he works for a company that takes business men to Russia and wants to give something back. So he contacted an agent called missing link and asked them if they knew of any entertainers who would give up a week, free of charge, to go to a part of Russia known for kidnapping and terrorist activity, and do stuff with children of conflict.

“Funny enough” they said, “we know just the man”, but he wasn’t available so they got me instead. In fact they got 3 of us. Pablito, a Spanish clown, Robbie, a magician, and yours truly, Mr. DevilStick Peat.

SWISSAIR and SIBERIAN AIRLINES have kindly donated the flights and given us extra weight allowance. The wonderful ladies from THE ANNE HARRIS CHILDREN’S FUND (WWW.ANNEHARRIS.ORG) have been up late every night sewing the 2 play parachutes that I’m taking with me (and donating to the schools there so that some of the fun carries on after we’ve left). They are big and blue and have cute little fish sewn on them. They look great and I can’t thank Anne or her helpers (Jo, Di, Ross etc) enough, not just for the parachutes, but also for their moral support over the last year. Another good friend of mine SIR HENRY LAWRENCE has arranged for the translation of the parachute games into Russian and also kindly donated a digital camera. MATT COPPER has supplied us with a camcorder so that I can keep a video diary, and a really nice hotel in Moscow called THE KATERINA (WWW.KATERINA.MSK.RU) has given us rooms free of charge in Moscow, whilst the hotel Vladderkovkoz is putting us up free of charge in Vladderkovkoz. All of which makes this little trip quite a group effort.

If it wasn’t for people doing these little things I wouldn’t be able to do this, so if any of you know any of these people, please tell them that I, and the children of Beslan, say thanks.

There had been a rugby match in Cardiff (Wales’s v Australia) so the train was full up of drunken yet good-humored fans. Unfortunately it was also late which meant that I missed the last train to Heathrow, so I took the night bus’s and got there at around 3; 30 a.m. At about 4 a.m. Robbie and Pablo arrived.

I was so tiered that by the time we took off for Zurich I was already asleep and didn’t really wake up until just before we touched down. On the plane from Zurich to Moscow I stayed awake just long enough to read a report in Newsweek, stating that the area we were heading for, North Ossetia, (on the edge of the Caucasus Mountains) is on the brink of civil war. Then I slipped back into sleep, satisfied that Newsweek thinks this is my sort of place.

At Moscow we collected our bags and I suggested to the others that, for a joke, we should hang back and let Simon (who was already in Moscow) panic and think we didn’t catch the plane.

We laughed and joked and hung back, then went through the arrivals door to meet Simon. He wasn’t there!

“That’s it,” I thought, “either his late, his pulling the same joke on us as we pulled on him, or any moment now I’m going to get a call from Simon in London saying “Aprils fool”.

A few minutes latter Simon turned up apologizing for being late and we left the airport and headed into downtown Moscow via a train that took us through a snow leaden wood of silver birch trees.

Moscow’s cold, but not as cold as I thought it would be and nowhere near as cold as Cardiff was when I left. Even so, I’m glad that I brought my full-length red and yellow coat. Not just for the warmth but also because of the reaction I get when I enter a café, or walk down the street (well I am a performer). It’s made of wool to a 15th century design by a medieval re-enactor known as duke Henry Plantagenet and is long and thick enough to spend a night curled up in around a bonfire.

Robbie, Pablo and I are pretty much the same as any other entertainers, I.E. we cover up our nervousness by performing and clowning around, including on the train, in the street, in the café, everywhere. Resulting in strange bemused looks from those around us.

At the hotel we spent a couple of hours freshening up (And discovering the delights of the in room mini bar) before going out for a meal and a quick look at red square.

In red square there’s a flame burning there in honor of the Unknown Soldier and being an ex-squaddie myself I removed my hat and had a few seconds silence, “lest we forget” before jokingly daring Pablo to light his cigarette on it.

Simon played the tour guide and pointed out things like Lenin’s tome, the army barracks that were “accidentally“ burnt down and replaced by a new shopping mall (luckily for Russia, the cranes etc that were needed to rebuild it just happened to be in place the day BEFORE it burnt down. Handy that). Then we headed on to the restaurant via an evil underground system.

I say evil because of the gates. In London you have gates that open when you put your ticket in the slot, but not in Russia, oh no. Here you have gates that stay open until you DON’T show a ticket, then these two eunuch making gates swing out and down with a speed and force reminiscent of Mr. Guillotine himself.

The restaurant was under ground in a place that seemed reminiscent of the caverns where the Beatles used to play, and here we met up with Umbria, an English lady who works for a charity in Chechnya (I’ve already decided that I want to go there and see the other side of the story so maybe she’s my way in), Madina, a Russian friend of Simon who’s from the area and is coming with us, and Zazar, his a surgeon from Moscow who’s parents live in Beslan and his taken us under his wing. Apparently, when he was a child he wanted to grow up and be a clown. From what I’ve seen of him he is a clown, a natural one, who’s loving the excuse to be silly in public.

After the meal we returned to the hotel for 1 vodka before bed (well it is Russia) and 3 or 4 vodkas latter that’s just what a very tiered yet happy fool did.

DAY TWO

I awoke at around 6:30, cursed my headache and lack of sleep, drunk loads of water and started to write up about the day before, then met the others for breakfast. Robbie was late and still half asleep when the hotel sales manager came along and thanked us for what we are doing for the children, but he soon woke up when the manager concluded by telling us that we are brave heroes as he wouldn’t dare to go there. Just what you need to hear at breakfast.

After breakfast we headed off on the next leg of the journey, stopping off at the Swiss air office to thank the lady who arranged the free flights. There was an embarrassing moment when both Pablo and I told her that our bags had been damaged in transit. But we managed to laugh our way through it before heading off to the train station.

As the train headed to the airport, so Robbie kept us (and a couple of on lookers) amused with magic tricks with elastic bands and rope.

The flight to Vladikavkaz (or bloody couscous as I call it) took a couple of hours in a small jet and as we started to descend through the clouds we could see the Caucasus Mountains standing tall and Tolken like beneath us. I love mountains and as I gazed out at their steep, jagged and snow capped peaks I remembered Henry (who’s part Russian) telling me a nursery rhyme from the area. The words of which were something like

“Hush baby don’t cry

Daddies gone to kidnap a rich Cossack

So when he comes home we will have food for a week”

Suddenly the words of the hotel manager seemed less funny.

There was a film crew at the airport and a beautiful young lady with a bouquet of flowers, but not for us. Although within a few minutes of seeing us they decided to start filming, probably something to do with the endless ping-pong balls that I was repeatedly regurgitating, much to the amusement of the official who tried his best to look stern as he checked our passports.

Outside the airport we realised that it’s a lot warmer here than in Moscow, or indeed Britain (a nice comfortable 15%). We also realised that the bus was late so, being 3 clowns who’d been cooped up on a plane for 2 hours, we done what we do best, I.E. clowning around. The cleaners, police, and onlookers loved it but even so, the soldier with the A.K.47 assault rifle still wouldn’t let me balance it on my chin. (Spoil sport).

Eventually we split up, some of us went in a taxi and the rest went with Zazar’s father (who’d turned up to welcome us), and headed off south towards the not so distant mountains and the town of bloody couscous.

On route Madina pointed out Table Mountain (so called because of its flat top), a distillery, and the new graveyard. So many children died here that they had to build a new one to fit them all in. A sobering sight that reminded me of why we’re here.

We’ve all agreed that it’s important that we go and visit the graves, pay our respect to those we can never entertain, but I’m dreading it because I know it will hurt. You’d think that by now, after the places I’ve been and the things I’ve seen and heard that I’d be used to it, but I’m not and don’t think that I ever will be. Indeed, the day it doesn’t hurt is the day I should quit this line of work.

The town it’s self is similar to most small post communist towns and reminds me of Kirkuk on the mountainous boarder between Kosovo and Albania. Its roads are straight and grid like with cattle that roam free on its outskirts, causing cars to suddenly brake and me to wish that the taxi had seat belts.

Simon took us to the hotel, unfortunately it was the wrong hotel and after a joke with the staff about sleeping on the floor we left and walked to the right one. On route 2 gipsy looking children came running up to Robbie and Pablo, hands outstretched in anticipation. As soon as they had paid up the kids came running up to me, unfortunately I don’t pay begging children, well, not with money anyway.

By the time the 5th ball had come out of my mouth they’d forgotten about begging and started laughing. For about ten minutes they walked along with me, laughing and squealing with delight each time I produced a new ball or seemingly pulled off a finger. The soberness of the graveyard was behind me now, lost to the joy of the moment.

Street kids are the same the world over. They all come running up with a hand outstretched. All look really startled when I do some simple magic, and all crave the attention that most adults cross the road to avoid giving them.

That night Simon and I met with the local minister of education and confirmed every thing was ready for us, and then we went out for dinner.

We walked to a restaurant and asked for a table, then we saw two small booths, one had a table for two in it and the other had a table for 8 in it. They were small private booths with curtains and designed for lovers (although why two lovers would want a table for eight is beyond me. Maybe the men here have more stamina than me). Every time the waitress came in she would knock first, although what she thought we were getting up to is no ones business. As we eat we discussed the show, who would do what when and were.

DAY THREE

Today’s the day. After months of planning, meetings, etc today’s the day we finery do our thing for the children of Beslan.

The first day of a show, the opening night (even though it’s morning) is always nerve racking. We all know our own shows are good, but we’ve never worked together before and so have no idea what the whole thing will look like.

It’s about a 20-minute drive to Beslan and at the entrance to the town is a heavy police presence, one of which really didn’t like it when he caught me filming him.

After the attack two new schools were built and in true Russian style they were given numbers rather than names, so what for us was school number one is in fact school number 8 (confused? you will be).

There was an armed guard at the gates, who kept on apologizing for checking our bags, but orders are orders, and after what happened here you can’t blame them.

The fun started as soon as we got out of the cars, Pablo messing about and mimicking people, me doing the ping pong balls (for a change) as we enter the school and head upstairs, pass another guard and into the theatre which had a real stage, a great start to the tour.

Once backstage we quickly worked out a running order and then I went to the door to mess around while they come in (what we in the trade call “meet and greet”).

The kids filed into the hall, accompanied by the occasional scream as woodbine (my furry rat like puppet) stuffed his nose in ears, bags, and anywhere else that would get a reaction, once they were inside the show started with me as the opening act, juggling 3 balls to “Here comes the sun” by the Beatles.

It’s a song that has special memories for me of Kosovo and the way the kids laughed at our shows, and lets face it, that’s what this work is all about, bringing a bit of sunshine into their life’s.

Pablo’s act is great. His one of these people who can just look at you and you have to laugh. The kids were in fits of laugher before he’d even started. He does a rolla-bolla routine (rolla-bolla is a tube with a short plank placed on top of it on which you balance). It’s based around the fact that he can’t do it and, in true clown style gets hurt and falls over a lot. Then at the end he does a skilful bit and ends up flipping the plank up on end between his legs, pretending to hit himself where it hurts.

Robbie was introduced as the ‘Koldoon Kavkaza’ (the ‘Wizard of the Caucasus’) and amazed the kids with humorous magic tricks that had everyone laughing.

My second spot on stage was the devil sticks, performed to a song by Punjabi m.c. I do like him and really must get some more of his stuff.

At the risk of sounding egotistical

WE ROCKED

The kids loved it and so did we.

By the time we’d finished we were buzzing with energy and adrenaline. Which is just as well as all too soon the children had filed out and the next audience (older children this time) was getting ready to file in

After the shows came the bit I’d been waiting for, parachute games. Because I hadn’t had a chance or room enough to fully open the parachutes yet, I was dying to see what they look like. They are great, more than great, and when the children shake it the fish look like they are swimming in waves. I really hope that the people who made them are proud of their work, they should be.

We played the games outside on the grass and I’m not sure who had the most fun, the children or Simon (who was interpreting for me). But all good things come to an end and all to soon it was time to finish up and say our good byes, stopping at the guard to jokingly offer up our bags for searching before getting into the car that Zarzar had borrowed from his father.

I’d forgotten just how much energy playing games with kid’s uses and once the buzz-fuelled energy wore off I fell asleep in the car. When I awoke it was close to sunset and to my surprise we hadn’t headed home. Instead we were in the mountains, on route to a ruined castle.

They really are amazing mountains with breathtakingly wonderful views and crystal clear rivers that roar as they cascade down to the plans below. Occasionally we stop and get out to take in the view and the warmth of the wind surprises me. As it gets darker and darker so the road gets smaller and smaller before turning in to a rocky track. I look out of my window at the long drop, which starts two feet away from the wheels and ends way off in the distance. I look ahead and try not to think about what would happen if we go over the edge, but fail miserably.

The tracks ends and still we continual up hill (well, up mountain), driving off road in a beat up old Volga at angles that make me wonder why it didn’t roll over.

Zarzar tells us that there’s a plague graveyard here somewhere, one of only two of it’s kind in the world and 5 minutes latter it appears in the headlights. It’s dark as we get out and stear out across a valley, way down below are the lights of a small town which houses a clinic for people with resoptarorty problems. In more peaceful times it was also a tourist town with people coming here for the skiing and climbing.

After a few minutes we return to the car and decide to head back down as we need to eat. As the car reaches the track the dog that chased as uphill now runs like crazy as we chase it back down. Then we hit the road again and continual down hill until we come to a restaurant owned by Zazar’s uncle. (In hindsight I think the whole trip was suggested by Zarzar so that he could bring us here).

There’s a young couple sitting at a table, and a man singing and playing an electric organ at about 3 decibels louder than is comfortable for my hearing. A blond lady who speaks some English produces bottles of vodka and a menu. As we wait for our meal other diners enter, including 4 men and what I presume are their wife’s and girlfriends. They catch my attention for several reasons. Not lest of which is the fact that they remind me of Serbian paramilitary’s, not just in their build, but also in their manumissions, but this is Russia, not Serbia so I try to put the thought out of my mind. After all, the bulge I notice at the back of the waist of two of them might just be thick wallets and not pistols.

The blond lady takes the microphone and tells the room why we are in Russia and asks if we’d do a little something for the people here. We of cause agree and each does a little something in between rounds of vodka, food and more vodka.

The people who reminded me of Serbians invite us to their table and, in between long toast made in Ossetian and Russian, tell us some of the background on the events surrounding the Beslan massacre.

There’s a difference of opinion about what happened and who none what when. Some say that it was just Chechens who took part; others say that it was a mixture of Chechens and Ingush, the other local tribe. (There’s a lot of tension between Ossetian and Ingush people). The government say they killed or captured all the gang, others say that some got away in the confusion. What ever the truth is, the fact is that over 300 innersent people, a vast majority of which were children, died in a senseless act of brutality that affected not just the people of Beslan, but Ossetian people everywhere. Then I learn something that amazes me.

I knew this is a “blood feud” area, reminiscent of Albania, but after the atrocity, not one revenge killing took place, NOT ONE!!! Meetings were held, arguments were thought through, but the town decided not to perpetuate the situation by doing what honor and tradition demanded. The decision was made that the horror of Beslan must stop, and stop NOW. The guts, wisdom and strength that must of took. I don’t think that I have ever meet such a wise race of people ever, nor will I again. If only more people, politicians and countries learned from this wise and ancient race then my job would be so much easier.

DAY FOUR

We leave the hotel and discover that the people from last night, the one’s I thought were Mafia types are waiting for us with a mini bus. They have adopted us and taken us under their wing. As we get into the back part of me silently wonders if we have been very nicely kidnapped. Another part of me says, “Not yet, first they’d let us work for the kids, then they kidnap us”.

I have a belief that when a whole nation or race suffers a collective trauma the safest person to be is the one who helps the children recover. After all, to pick on that man results in the children suffering even more, and that just isn’t worth the risk, not if you have to live there (and want to carry on living). So far that theosophy has been proved right in several conflict and kidnap areas. Let’s just hope it doesn’t let me down now.

Even if they are kidnapping us, the fact is I have more important things on my mind. Like 3 shows and the mother of all headaches (dam all those toasts last night, but it’s difficult to say no when his 4 times as wide as you and has a bulge in his belt. Even more so if you’re me).

At the second school we play in there’s an old lady who sits dead centre of the audience. Her face is like stone and a fearsome sight. I think to myself that if we can get her to smile then we must be the best clowns ever but try as we might her deadpan mask remains unchanging.

Due in Pablo’s rolla-bolla routine he falls to the floor and instantly 3 or 4 kids invade the stage and help him up. It was brilliant. Normally when the clown is down kids tend to kick or punch him, but not these kids. They really want to help. The trouble is it kind of stops his funny “I can’t get up routine”. So once the kids leave the stage he falls over again. This time half a dozen kids charge forward and help him up. Again he falls over and loads of kids are there, almost fighting each other in an attempt to be the ones who help him. Again they leave the stage but this time they are all posed, ready to charge and help him. It was the funniest and most beautiful moment of the tour and how that old lady managed to keep a straight face is beyond me.

That night our friendly kidnapers/guardians met us for dinner. We were tiered from the last few days of working, traveling and vodka laden toasts and just wanted to have a quiet meal in town then retire for the night. Our friends however had other ideas. They’d booked a table in a restaurant a few miles out of town and really wanted us to join them. Robbie is coming down with a cold and so decided to head back. Madina, who really doesn’t like these people, used escorting him home as an excuse to back out of the meal.

Simon has come up with the expression, “aggressive hospitality” to describe the way they look after us. Eventually we give in and agree to go to the restaurant with them and travel in two taxis. Russia is like Iraq when it comes to taxis I.E. every car is a taxi. You just put your hand out, someone stops, and you agree a price and jump in.

In all honesty I’m pretty sure that we are safe, but I’m also pretty sure that we’re partying with the Russian mafia and part of me wonders why it is that, when I do this type of job, I always seem to end up being befriended by gangster types. I think part of it is politics. They want to be seen by the locals as NICE axe welding sycomaniacs. Also, being of a less moral nature means they know just how dangerous this area is, and feel honor bound to protect us.

At the restaurant we are shown to a private room and have a meal fit for a king. The table, as big as it is, is not big enough to hold the endless plates of food that keeps appearing via a pretty blond waitress. Pablo jokingly comments on how pretty she is and we are immediately offered women should we want

“You want anything,” says one of them “women or anything at all just say and we will get it for you free”.

“And if you ever need to hide from the police or anyone” adds another “come here and we will hide you”

Although the meal is a laid back affair it includes lots of long, drawn out formal toasts, complete with a toastmaster. He is the youngest of them and the one I like most. Of all of them he is the one who I think has more morals. The toasts are conducted in a preset order. The first one is always to god, the second to those traveling the road. At one point I ask permission to make a toast and once permission is given I tell them that it’s my belief that every adult on this planet is personally responsible for and to every child on this planet, and ask them to raise their glass’s to our children everywhere. This impresses the toastmaster as this was the 4th toast and, according to tradition the 4th toast is meant to be to children. Pablo is impressed simply because it was a quick one (well he gets bored quickly, especially when he can’t understand what’s being said).

By the end of the meal I am 100 percent sure of 2 things.

A) That we are partying with the local mafia types.

B) That we are in no danger.

Despite everything, these are honorable people whose only wish is to look after us and thank us for our work. In Albania they say that you’re allowed to be a bandit if your children are hungry and let’s face it, who amongst us wouldn’t rob to feed their children. I know I would, and maybe our friends are no different (so I’m a trusting soul).

After the meal we enter the main hall where the other diners are eating. There’s a two-man band singing and playing music. A song is dedicated to us and we boogie on down for another hour or so before taking a taxi back to our hotel. As we leave the restaurant Pablo says, “ When I count to 3, we all run before they kidnap us”.

All joking aside they really did treat us like kings. No one can ever say that the noble and ancient people of Ossetia lack generosity.

At the hotel the floor lady tells us that her sister was killed in the massacre and then she gives us a book. It’s by a local poet and it includes photo’s of all those killed. As she talks to us about it we flick through the pages. Both Pablo and I have tears in our eyes. Its one thing to see it on telly but quite another to go there and feel their hurt. It will be a very very long time until I’ll be able to look at that book with dry eyes.

DAY FIVE

Robbie leaves today. He has a gig he can’t get out of. After the shows he will catch the plane back, as we must go tomorrow. We go out for breakfast and Robbie tells us that last night he was worried that we wouldn’t come back. Madina joined us and so did one of the mafia, the younger one who I liked.

The first show is in a school where Madina worked. She’d spent 4 months here earlier this year with John a psychiatrist/drama teacher. They were getting children from Ossetian and Ingush schools together doing drama workshops. Trying to increase their stunted imaginations whilst convincing them that they can be friends with the other ethnic group.

When we arrive there we are told that only one ethnic group are there. Apparently the Ingush children haven’t come because several people from their village were kidnapped the day before. The school is old and deferentially the poorest one we’ve been to, yet to me it was the nicest due to all the anti war posters that the children have drawn and put on the walls.

Parachute games are difficult as it’s raining outside and the hall is too small for the parachute. Add to this the excitement of the children and you’ve a disaster waiting to happen, resulting in the games being cut short.

After the show comes the part I’ve been dreading, the visit to the graves, but it’s important to go there, not just to pay our respect but also to help us comprehend the scale of what happened here.

We arrive at the graveyard at around 2 p.m. At the entrance is a big golden statue, maybe 20 feet high. It has 4 women in traditional dress standing in a circle, facing outwards. Their arms are raised above their heads and their hands are holding a mesh of thick branches upon which are little child like angles. Placed around it are huge wreaths and a large light brown teddy bear.

As I get out of the van crows dip and weave through the sky behind the graveyard.

To one side of the statue stand 4 large black marble slabs upon which is engraved the names of the departed. I counted 21 names in a column and two columns of names per slab.

“Jesus” I think, “that makes 168 names”. I stand there for a few minutes trying to comprehend how anything that calls itself human could do this to children, then, as I turn to enter the graveyard I realize that on the other side is another 4 large black slabs full of even more names. I do a quick bit of maths and my eyes start to water. Most of these people, a huge majority of them were CHILDREN

The graves their self’s are all made of matching reddish brown marble and stand in 6, incredibly long rows. Upon each one is a photo of the person whose grave it is, and at the base of those of the children are placed their favorite toys and cans of pop or sweets. At the base of the adults ones are their favorite brand of cigarettes or other personal reminders.

I recognize some of the photos from the book the floor lady had given us the night before. One is of a child only 4 years old. Another is of a 15-year-old girl. She looks radiant dressed in a long white bridesmaid dress. So full of pride and promise. A promise that now will never be fulfilled.

Tears roll down my cheeks as I look at grave after grave after grave. In my time I’ve seen some horrid reminders of mans hatred of man. The shadows of those we burnt in Al Amiria, Iraq. Forever scorched into the bomb shelters concrete floor. The white bricks that represent the missing Kosovo’s in gjakova, but this… I still can’t comprehend how people can do this to children.

I have no idea how long we spent there, each lost in his own thoughts, but eventually it’s time to leave and head for the next school. The ten-minute drive is spent in quiet contemplation.

At the next school Zarzar is waiting for us and as I go to step out of the mini bus he takes hold of my shoulders and stares hard into my eyes. He says nothing. He doesn’t have to. He can tell by my eyes where we’ve been and knows that there are no words to say.

After the show the editor of the local paper invites us to her house for some food. Robbie has to leave for his plane but the rest of us go along, stopping first at a music school as Pablo wants to buy an accordion and this place might know where to get one cheap. As people talk in the headmaster’s office so I try to keep my mind occupied by messing around with kids outside. After half an hour we head on to the editors home.

She reminds me of everyone’s grandmother. The type who always has a pot of chicken soup on the brew. She’s put on a big spread for us; unfortunately no one told her that we’re veggie. (Next time we should call it “veggie clowns on tour”; people might get the hint then). Like any self-respecting grandmother she apologizes for not having any veggie food in the house, then promptly over-fills the table with lovely veggie food and of cause, vodka.

Her house is within spiting distance of the remains of the besieged school. She tells us how her daughter was killed in the siege and how it took 5 days to find her body. Zarzar is sitting next to me and covers his eyes to try and hide the tears that are pouring down his face. I put my arm around him to try and comfort him, but how can you comfort someone whose people have been through this. He shows me a photo of a 4 year old he operated on (his a surgeon). They not only put a knife in the child’s stomach, but also then proceeded to wiggle it around. As I hug him I feel the anger burn inside of me. It is my sincere hope that those who caused this atrocity to happen die a very slow, cancerous death.

The editor then tells us that it wasn’t Chechnya people that caused this to happen, but Ingush. “Chechynions could never do such a thing; they are good people, but the Ingush…”

For myself I don’t know whose version of it is right. All I know is that it must never be allowed to happen again, NEVER

After the meal we head for the home of Zazar’s father for even more food (and of cause, the compulsory bottle or 10 of vodka).

We meet his family, the next-door neighbor, and the young mafia guy and his girlfriend. As per-normal in Ossetia, the toasting is a formal affair. Spoken with the reverence of a prayer they are said in Ossetian first, then Russian, so that Simon can translate them for us, (Simon is a great translator, I wonder if he realizes just how great a job he did). This takes time and Pablo gets bored, preferring to play games with the families’ pet budgie.

The neibour is the head of a school and asked us if we could come their and perform tomorrow. Simon translates this and waits for Pablo’s and mine answers. It was going to be an easy day, maybe a drive in the mountains before the flight home. We don’t hesitate in our answers. After what we’ve seen and the hospitality we have been shown there’s just no way to say no.

Eventually the night is over and it’s time to leave. We get into a car with the mafia man and his girlfriend. She is in the front with Pablo and his sitting in the back, between Simon and I.

He starts talking, one of his drunken speeches but Pablo’s had enough and turns the car stereo up so that it’s too loud for him to talk. His girlfriend finds this funny and turns it up even more. Because Simon is filming the view out the window he doesn’t see what happens next.

The mafia man leans across me and opens the window then his right arm reaches behind him to the bulge at the back of his waist, the one that I said could have been a thick wallet. IT ISN’T.

“HIS GOT A GUN” I say as he pulls it out, cocks it and leans across me to fire it out of the window and up in the air.

His girlfriend shouts at him, telling him off, but he just laughs, happy with the fact that his got her attention. Pablo thinks his bust a balloon, Simon thinks it was a firecracker, I think I need new underwear.

It was horrible, I wasn’t sober enough to guarantee being able to take it off of him (even if I was, his 3 times as wide as me), and really didn’t want to have a struggle in the back of a cramped car as that could of resulted in bullets going anywhere, including into the driver. I had a good idea that he was going to fire it out of the window but even so, sitting there watching him pull it and doing nothing was scary as hell.

Back at the hotel they are shocked when I tell them what happened and replay the tape in the camera. Sure enough you can hear it all, the cocking of the gun, me stating what’s happening, the opening of my bottom, the whole lot.

DAY SIX

We have breakfast and book out of the hotel then head off towards tino’s school. It’s just Pablo and me now as Robbie left yesterday. I warm the audience up with some silly balloon routines then Pablo and I take it in turns to go on stage doing things. As a final finally we get the headmaster to stand between us as we pass 6 clubs around him. In his mouth is a cigarette and Pablo knocks it out with a club.

I like this teacher. He looks like the sort of man who works with kids because he likes them, not just for money. (But then the only mafia type to wave a gun near me was the one I thought had morals).

After the show our mafia friends take us for dinner, after which we are due to go do something in a hospital so I stay in costume, glad of the fact that another show is a good reason to stay sober whilst around the armed mobsters.

The dinner takes longer than we hoped, due mainly to the length of the toasts, but eventually we head off to the hospital.

Alas we are too late for the children’s clinic but a rather amused police lady (even the hospital has armed guards) takes us to meet the doctor that Simon knows. We talk for a while, he proves he can juggle, so I take on his role, pull out his cigarettes and tell him off for smoking. Then all of a sudden it’s time to go and we head straight for the airport. That’s when I realize that I’m still in costume.

At the airport some rather bemused staff check my passport etc as I stand there, straight faced in a fools costume. Then I get changed, unfortunately there’s no toilet to get changed in so I have to do it there and then. Boy, am I glad that I have a full-length coat to change under.

As the plane takes off I take one last look at the Caucasus Mountains. They are beautiful and radiant as they stand tall and proud above the green planes below. Then I think about the Ossetian people.

They are a race that is slowly dyeing out. In Georgia, after the war, they had to change their names and forsake their past. And those who committed this terrible act know that. Which is why the attack was not just an attack on Russia, but also an attack on the whole Ossetian race. Yet despite this they refused to retaliate, not even the mafia types. I don’t think I’ve ever met a race that wise and honorable. I’m proud to have met them, all of them. Be they a teacher or a cleaner, mafia or manager. That one act of none-retaliation proved that there’s more wisdom and honor in their small race than in the rest of the world put together.

That night we are back in Moscow and partying in a nightclub. I perform the ping-pong ball routine for two children there. The nightclub owner see’s me doing it and it turns out that they are related to him. He takes me outside and tells me (via Simon) how he dreams of being a traveling clown. He looks impressed when Simon tells him I already am. When (not if but when) we return to Russia and Ossetia we have a paid gig at his club. Which would be nice. (I love doing this work but at the same time I have bills to pay, Xmass prezzies to buy, women to woo, so a paid gig now and then is handy.)

Back inside I tell Pablo that one day a young lady will see me doing that trick and be so amazed that she’ll offer to sleep with me, he laughs. 5 minutes latter there’s this lovely sexy young lady laughing at the routine. Then she’s offering me the chance to go home with her. I refuse. The instincts that get me in and (more importantly) out of conflict zones are still in force. There’s no way I’m going anywhere alone with a stranger, not even a sexy one.

DAY SEVEN

I’m up early, about 4 hours before the rest and spend the time catching up on this diary. When they arise it’s nearly mid-day and we have arranged to meet Madina for lunch. At the restaurant there’s a Russian clown who gives me a balloon before I leave. Then we head for the airport. Simon’s not with us as he has another flight booked. In the airport I buy a t-shirt that appeals to my warped sense of humor. It has the words “Kalashnikov, tested the world over” on it.

Then, laughing and joking, a clown and a fool who’ve just shown laughter to the kids, and solidarity to the parents, get on a plane and fly home to England, happy in the knowledge that it was a job well done.

P.S. the two parachutes that were so kindly donated by THE ANNE HARRIS CHILDREN’S FUND (WWW.ANNSHARRIS.ORG) were donated to the two schools that took in the child survivors.

P.P.S. We’ll be back next year

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